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by Brian Brooks
December 13, 2008 8:48 AM
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DISPATCH FROM DUBAI | Puttin' on the Ritz: 5th DIFF Dazzles and Spotlights the Downtrodden

"This is a great city and a crossroads of trade," praised director Oliver Stone Thursday night prior to the opening night screening of his latest "W." at the Dubai International Film Festival. Though the film has already opened at home, it is quite a testament for a festival that is only in its fifth year to get the likes of Stone and others to travel literally halfway around the world. And why not? Let's face it, the film industry - both Hollywood and Indiewood, or what there is left of it - is drawn to events that offer a glitzy good time. And the very word "Dubai" conjures images of over the top wealth and zillion dollar development. And quite honestly, it's true. For the most part every image I had of this once unknown emirate (part of the United Arab Emirates) is, on the face of it, reality. But that is not to say only star-driven work makes the Dubai cut. The fest is also a treasure trove for below the radar Arab, African and Asian film.

Obviously fueling the festival's fast rise is the soaring market and infrastructure in the region. Dubai is building its own "media city" and though box office receipts are still low comparatively, they've grown tremendously. According to an article in the festival's "Dubai Daily," the total box office receipts for the Arab Middle East totaled $63 million in 2003, but jumped to $108 million by 2007.

The movies are definitely en vogue here. Sibling rival Abu Dhabi (the capital of the U.A.E.) launched its own Middle East Film Festival two years ago - taking place in August - while neighboring Qatar recently announced it will host its own event in conjunction with a prominent U.S. fest to be known as the Tribeca Film Festival - Doha. "Have we succeeded to bring the film industry here?" asked DIFF artistic director Masoud Amralla al Ali rhetorically before introducing Stone to the stage. "Can film fill the cultural gaps in the world? We say 'yes' because we have many friends who've come here. Five years of bridging cultures...we want to be a [vehicle] for Western, Asian and African films..."

Italian and Indian films are among the cinemas receiving special focus this year, but a running theme for a handful of titles from several regions deal with the topic of migration. Sri Lankan/German/Italian production "Machan" by Uberto Pasolini focuses on a Sri Lankan man and his friends who attempt to emigrate illegally to Germany, while Spanish production "Retorno a Hansala" (Return to Hansala) by Chus Gutierrez is the story of a Moroccan woman who returns home from Spain amidst economic and social divide.

Darrell James Roodt's "Zimbabwe" is another heart-wrenching story steeped in another current-day crisis. A 19-year old girl loses her parents to AIDS and is left to fend for her baby niece and younger brother in remote Zimbabwe. After moving in with an exploitive and uncaring aunt, she crosses the border illegally to South Africa and becomes a virtual serf to an unscrupulous "employment agency" that hires her out to an upper middle class family where she faces physical and sexual abuse. Though she is not hungry and her immediate physical surroundings are nicer then anything at home, her fear and abuse makes life unbearable.

"This film is difficult because it doesn't provide a simple solution," said the film's producer Jeremy Nathan following a weekend screening in Dubai, adding that he realizes the film may be a difficult sell to even Africa's very small niche in European television. "It's not always palatable to the BBC so to speak... But we think it can build word of mouth using alternative distribution sources."

The fact that the crisis in the politically torn country, once known as the breadbasket of Africa, has been a central topic in the world's newspapers and 24-hour news networks could also bring attention to the film, Nathan explained with some irony. "In his own sick way [President] Mugabe is doing his own sort of 'marketing' for us," added Nathan.

While DIFF has done a great job finding work on immigration which has raised tension in Africa, Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, I can't help but wonder why Dubai did not choose to screen "Transit Dubai," (IDFA 2008) which also, in part, deals with the issue where foreigners form a core of laborers physically building the city's rampant property boom.

Iranian cinema has continued to be a standout favorite on the world festival circuit, and director Manijeh Hekmat's "Se Zan" (3 Women) appears to be a highlight among DIFF audiences this weekend. The film spotlights three generations of women, a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter, whose differing notions of cultural identity in a society in flux creates gaps in their relationships. Minoo is a spirited carpet-darner who is determined and panicked by her missing daughter Pegah who simply dropped out of school and has gone missing. Pegah, meanwhile, races out of Tehran and picks up a philosphical hitchhiker who brings some perspective. Simultaneously, Minoo's ailing mother has disappeared clinging on to a priceless Persian carpet, which is a link to her past.

"The carpet is a historic and cultural symbol - it is the one [thing] that holds them all together," explained Hekmat, who directed "Women's Prison" (2002). She spoke during a post-screening Q&A, through an interpreter. Hekmat described the generation gaps as partly a result of the country's 1979 revolution and subsequent war with Iraq, which created a divide between those who lived before the era, those who lived during the tumultuous time and the large generation of universtiy students today who were born during the '80s.

"The current generation is from around a time of the revolution and then the war. This is a problem for artistic and intellectuals [in Iran]," said Hekmat. "There's a lack of 'historical memory' and they have a big gap between [the generations] so they have trouble with communication."

The 5th Dubai International Film Festival continues through Thursday, December 18.

[indieWIRE's Brian Brooks will have more from the 5th Dubai International Film Festival later this week.]

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